Some of the children referred to School-Home Support don’t have their own bed to sleep in, let alone a desk and a place to study. One boy feeding himself on budget microwave meals only went to school when he could scrape the bus fare together from around the house, ferreting down the side of the sofa for forgotten coins. We work with children who are carers, children whose families are in unsuitable housing and others where the whole family is falling apart under the weight of mental ill health caused by the stress of challenging lives.
Most of the families referred to us by schools for attendance support live in this country’s most deprived communities. These children are missing weeks, months and sometimes years of their education – severely affecting their future life chances. We’ve seen a 56 per cent increase in demand for our services over the past year as the cost-of-living crisis bears down on the same communities hardest hit by the pandemic.
Schools continue to astonish in their ability to give when there is nothing left to give, but they are stretched to the max. In the past, public services were funded to help schools cope, but funding hasn’t kept pace with demand. Take the early help service, designed to ensure families get support from the local authority. According to FOI research conducted for our ‘Dig a Little Deeper’ Campaign, almost one-quarter of school referrals are returned ‘without action’. Thresholds for help are unacceptably high, meaning ‘early’ help effectively no longer exists, causing issues to escalate, feeding the absence problem and costing more.
The sad truth is that the system is currently failing schools and vulnerable families. The ongoing parliamentary inquiry into persistent absence is welcome but the reality is that some of today’s persistently absent children are never coming back to school so time is of the essence.
The Government’s direction of travel on tackling has been broadly right, as reflected in the latest Guidance, Working together to improve school attendance. Community partnerships focusing on support with underlying causes and sanctions as a last resort will work, but only if funding follows and soon. Meanwhile, the attendance mentor pilot in Middlesbrough is hugely welcome but needs to go much further, much faster; its current reach is only 335 pupils.
Forty years working with children and families have taught me two things. First, most parents want the best for their children, including doing well at school. Blaming and punishing them for absence doesn’t work and can be counter-productive. Second, there are no quick fixes; getting children into school and their families fully engaged takes time, trust and understanding.
The kind of support families need to tackle absence is important. It’s not the ‘throw some money at it, no questions asked’ kind of support. It’s the arm round the shoulder, ‘we can do this’ kind of support which builds family skills, resilience and ambition, leaving families in a stronger place than before.
The goal must be to strengthen the bridge between home and school, not weaken it as Michael Gove’s recent proposal to further punish families would do. The idea is short-sighted, regressive and reflects an outdated view of what works and how best to spend limited public resources.
Schools know what to do and who can help them do it, but without resources and recognition of the complexity of the task at hand, they (which means we) are doomed to fail.
That’s why our ‘Dig a Little Deeper Campaign’ is calling on the chancellor to provide £90.2 million to boost family support in this week’s budget. This support would be targeted around schools in communities where absence exceeds the national average of 12 per cent and would be enough to fund 2,225 practitioners, supporting 194,000 children and their familiesbased on a bespoke, whole-family support model.
When communities have complex, long-standing problems which need deep investment in education and skills to level up, they shouldn’t have to choose between good teaching and learning and high-quality, whole-family support. Investment is needed in both.